Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI Road America Notebook: Saturday

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Saturday was a busy day for the all three series in the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, with each contesting races in the early afternoon. The day saw three dominating victories, along with an epic drive from one of the championship leaders.

 

Indy Lights: Leist Dominates Race 1

The momentum Matheus Leist had built in the month of May carried over into the month of June, as he led every lap from pole to dominate Race 1 at Road America for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires. He fended off challenges from Neil Alberico and Ryan Norman in turn 1 after the start and slowly began to pull away from the field, eventually winning by over six seconds.

“The car today was perfect,” said an elated Leist, who will start second in Race 2. “The moment was very good. I’m very happy for this team working so hard. The car is fast in qualifying and fast in the race as well. Really looking for tomorrow.”

Santi Urrutia emerged in second after a tough fight with Ryan Norman and Kyle Kaiser in the early laps, with Kaiser rounding out the podium in third, ahead of Norman in fourth.

Urrutia, despite the strong finish, was very frustrated afterward, citing a simple lack of pace that kept him from challenging for the win. “I’m struggling as I don’t have the speed,” he lamented. “That’s the only thing. Long day to improve the car. Definitely we’re not quick. We want to keep gaining some speed and developing for the championship.”

Kaiser, meanwhile, continued the consistency that has vaulted him into the championship lead. But, as he explained afterward, Kaiser is not playing prevent. “I think it’s important to finish races but I’m not trying to be careful,” he asserted. “When you’re too defensive and careful you get wrecked. I showed that this weekend. We made a lot of good passes. I was aggressive to the very last lap. That’s the plan the rest of the year.”

Of note: Neil Alberico was shuffled nearly outside the top ten after running wide at Turn 1 on the opening lap, but eventually rebounded to finish seventh. Colton Herta and Aaron Telitz, meanwhile, endured very difficult races that saw neither in contention at any time, and both finished outside of the top ten. Telitz was 11th and Herta 12th at the checkered flag, with Herta even spinning late in the going.

Results are below. Race 2 rolls off Sunday at 9:45 a.m. (8:45 local time) and will air on NBCSN at 11:30 a.m. ET. Qualifying report for Race 2 can be found here.

 

Pro Mazda: Martin Withstands Franzoni Charge for Race 2 Win

Anthony Martin needed to fend off a hungry Victory Franzoni for the Race 2 win in Pro Mazda. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Victory Franzoni may have had the drive of the year in Race 2 for the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, but it was Anthony Martin who went to victory lane. Martin led every lap from the pole, while Franzoni ripped through the field after starting 15th to finish second.

Franzoni was up to third in the early laps when a caution for a spinning Brendan Puderbach allowed him to close the gap to Martin. He then moved to second on the subsequent restart and immediately began pressuring Martin for the lead.

Martin had to endure two more restarts, one coming on the final lap, to hold off the fast-moving Franzoni, but he was able to consistently thwart all challenges to take his third win of the 2017 season. Nikita Lastochkin rounded out the podium in third.

Martin explained afterward that he kept Franzoni behind him by focusing forward. “I got a really good start and I kept that gap for a good while until the safety car came out and bunched everyone up. And at that point, I saw the standard white and purple car in third place and thought ‘OK, he’s definitely got pace.’ I just had to put my head down and my bum up and really focus on the road ahead of me and not behind me,” said the Australian.

Franzoni, despite the strong run, lamented losing points to Martin in the championship. “I’m sad not to win, but other people would say it’s good that I came back to finish second. But we lost points today, even though I came from last to second. I had to be really smart and really aggressive. I couldn’t lose time but I couldn’t crash,” he said.

Results are below. Franzoni now leads Martin by a scant seven points, with Pro Mazda’s next event coming at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on July 28-29.

 

USF2000: Rinus Veekay Sweeps the Weekend

Rinus Veekay won both USF2000 races at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Rinus VeeKay (full surname of Van Kalmthout) had the broom out in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda as he swept the weekend at Road America. The 16-year-old Dutchman outlasted challenges from David Malukas, Calvin Ming, and Oliver Askew to dominate Race 2. It is also the third consecutive race weekend in which a driver won both races, with Oliver Askew doing so at the previous rounds at Barber Motorsports Park and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course.

“It’s great. I won a lot of points for the championship standings, and I’m happy with that. I’m happy I could show the speed. My first two wins in one weekend, it’s great!” said a jubilant Veekay.

Ming managed to get ahead of Askew for second, while Askew rebounded from Friday’s  17th-place finish to end up third. They moved up at the expense of Malukas, who had been running second, but spun off into the gravel at turn 14 on the final lap.

Results are below (note: Ming finished second, with Malukas credited with 12th). Veekay’s victories, coupled with Askew’s struggles, bring Veekay to within 23 points of the championship lead. The next race for USF2000 is July 9 at Iowa Speedway, the only oval on their 2017 calendar.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

 

Bottas feels at home at Mercedes as a challenger, not No. 2

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) Valtteri Bottas feels like he finally belongs at Mercedes, and that is not as a support driver to Lewis Hamilton.

The Finnish driver has exceeded expectations since joining from Williams as an emergency replacement for Nico Rosberg, who dramatically retired days after winning last year’s Formula One championship.

“I feel very much part of the team, I feel I can definitely perform at my best level,” Bottas said Thursday ahead of this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix. “(There is) plenty more to come.”

The widely held perception was that Bottas, who had never won a race before this season, was clearly arriving as the No. 2 behind Hamilton, a three-time F1 champion.

Yet at the halfway point of the 20-race season, Bottas is in third place overall, 22 points behind Hamilton and 23 behind four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari. That puts him within touching distance.

Bottas won in Russia and Austria, and finished second in Canada, Azerbaijan and Britain. With four straight podium finishes, he has good momentum for the Hungarian GP, the last race before a month-long summer break.

If not for his failure to finish the Spanish GP in May, Bottas could be even closer to Hamilton and Vettel.

“I feel like I am getting up to speed now. In a way I hope there wasn’t a break,” Bottas said Thursday. “I always set targets higher. I didn’t expect myself to be behind (Hamilton) all the time. I’ve shown it is possible to battle and show my skills.”

Asked if he thinks he can win the title, the 27-year-old Bottas says “everything is wide open,” adding “I believe I can fight for the pole (position) here.”

The twisting nature of the 4.4-kilometer (2.7-mile) Hungaroring circuit may favor Ferrari more than Mercedes, however.

Mercedes struggled at this season’s Monaco GP, which is a similarly tight-turning track where overtaking is much harder. Vettel won in Monaco from pole, while Bottas was fourth for Mercedes and Hamilton managed only seventh spot.

“We’ve learnt a lot since Monaco,” Bottas said. “I think it will be a good test for our car, we’re expecting a close battle.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Hungarian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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Formula 1’s final race before the summer break takes place this weekend with the Hungarian Grand Prix from the Hungaroring in Budapest.

It’s a busy time of year and a highly important weekend on the calendar, with the two championship combatants only separated by one point and all the silly season talk about 2018 heating up – particularly with the two-day young driver test set to run on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week after the race.

And with the confirmation the Halo device is set to be introduced next year, what are the drivers thoughts on that?

All that makes for ideal timing of this weekend’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass with Will Buxton checking in from the ground in Hungary.

Here’s the pre-race episode, below.

Drivers divided over F1 halo cockpit device

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) The “halo” cockpit head protection system that will be mandatory on Formula One cars next season protects drivers from the potentially fatal impact of objects like a loose wheel traveling at up to 225 kph (140 mph).

Motor sport’s governing body, FIA, has been looking at ways to improve cockpit protection and limit the risk of head injuries, after French F1 driver Jules Bianchi died in July 2015 and British IndyCar driver Justin Wilson died a month later.

“The halo will become the strongest part of the car, a secondary wall structure (along with the helmet) and can take about 15 times the car’s weight,” FIA safety director Laurent Mekies said at a news conference Thursday. “We know that our resistance against small objects has stepped up.”

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY – JULY 27: FIA Race Director, Charlie Whiting and Laurent Mekies, FIA Deputy Race Director and Safety Director talk in a press conference regarding the halo device during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 27, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Drivers remain divided over the move.

The halo design forms a semi-circular barrier around the driver’s helmet in the front half of the cockpit, protecting against debris without completely closing the cockpit. When first tested ahead of 2016, drivers were split as to whether they liked it with some – such as three-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton – criticizing it on aesthetic grounds.

Tests were done from the front and side of the car with a loose wheel weighing 20 kilograms. Researchers took in various factors: car-to-car contact, car-to-environment contact and external objects, such as a wheel. They also analyzed real-life accidents, including those with fatalities.

In terms of manufacturing design, FIA race director Charlie Whiting said “it’s going to be a one-part (piece) made by one company, so they all have to fit the same one.”

The device is expected to weigh about 8 kilograms, Whiting said. The manufacturer has yet to be decided, although several companies have been contacted. Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas both expressed concern that the extra weight will impact driving, particularly on cornering speeds.

Other safety devices were considered before the halo was approved by the FIA last week.

At the British Grand Prix two weeks ago, a transparent open canopy system constructed using polycarbonate, and known as the “shield,” was tested at Silverstone by four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel.

The Ferrari driver was critical.

“I wasn’t a big fan of the shield,” Vettel said. “For sure you need to get used to the halo, but at least it didn’t impact on the vision.”

Bianchi died at the age of 25, several months after massive head injuries sustained at the Japanese GP in October 2014.

Bianchi’s accident at Suzuka occurred at the end of the race in rainy, gloomy conditions, when his Marussia team car slid off the track and ploughed into a crane picking up the Sauber of German driver Adrian Sutil, who had crashed at the same spot one lap earlier.

Wilson died in August 2015, a day after being hit on the helmet by debris from another car at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania.

“We believe (the halo) would have changed dramatically the outcome of the accident,” Mekies said.

Vettel, who emotionally dedicated his 2015 win at Hungary to Bianchi, said the change was justified.

“We would all take it, to help save his life. We can’t turn back the clock,” the German driver said. “But knowing something is there that would help us is stupid to ignore. Overall it’s supposed to help us, so that’s what we should remember.”

While Hamilton and others have been critical of the halo’s appearance, Vettel championed it.

“Times are changing and moving forward,” Vettel said. “It helps us in the car in case something goes very wrong.”

Two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso is also in favor.

“If we could go back in time and save lives we would all be happy,” the Spanish driver said. “That’s the first and only thing we should talk about. The aesthetics I don’t care too much (about).”

Several drivers disagree.

“Doesn’t look too good,” Renault driver Nico Hulkenberg said. “Not sure that this additional protection is necessary because all the other areas (of safety) are improving.”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, and Haas drivers Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean are also against it.

“I didn’t like the visibility and the thing in front of you, it’s not great,” the 19-year-old Verstappen said. “I don’t think you will lose the wheel very easily (anyway) and when there are parts flying around the car it’s not going to protect you. So I don’t know why we need it.”

Magnussen took a sarcastic tone.

“F1 cars aren’t meant to be ugly. That is the reason that a Ferrari is more exciting than a Mazda,” the Danish driver said. “I think there is a limit where it becomes too safe to be exciting. We could make the cars go 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour and it would be boring.”

Grosjean said “it was a sad day for Formula 1 when it was announced, and I am still against it.”

Sergio Perez wants 2018 F1 contract secured by Spa

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Sergio Perez is keen to swiftly define his Formula 1 future and secure a contract for next season by the time the paddock reconvenes in Belgium at the end of August after the summer break.

Perez has been one of the stand-out drivers in F1 this year, sitting seventh in the drivers’ championship as the leading midfielder behind those racing for Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull.

The Mexican’s future has become a regular talking point during F1’s ‘silly season’, with links to Ferrari being thrown about for 2018 as it mulls over Kimi Raikkonen’s position.

Force India has been punching well above its weight in F1 this year, much to Perez’s delight, and he hopes to have a new contract with the team sorted for next year within the next month.

“I think the team has been moving forwards every year. Although last year we achieved the same position which we have now which is fourth, I think we have consolidated that fourth place,” Perez said.

“I think the team is moving forwards; there is a lot more interest in terms of sponsorship into the team, more investment but it’s not easy to make the next step with the big boys, with the big teams, it’s not easy.

“In terms of my future, I just hope that once I come back to the next race, after the summer break, I can have a new contract.”

When asked if he meant a new contract with Force India, Perez said: “That would be good you know, but you never know what will happen.”